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2018 Cal Football Preview: Defensive Line

The biggest question mark on Cal’s defense still has the potential to improve on 2017’s steady performance.

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After a miserable 2016 season, Cal returned a significant amount of production to complement a coaching change and a switch to a 3-4 base defense. The turnaround on this side of the ball was astonishing and is a testament to the job Justin Wilcox and the coaching staff are doing in Berkeley. This year, Cal has to replace two-time All-Conference Honorable Mention DE James Looney as well as legendary defensive line coach Jerry Azzinaro, who migrated down south to become defensive coordinator at UCLA, but there is enough coming back to believe this unit will be improved in 2018.

The Starters

DE Zeandae Johnson rJR 6-4. 295

NG Chris Palmer rSR 6-2 335

DE Luc Bequette rJR 6-2 300

Rotation

DE Tevin Paul rSO 6-4 270

DE Lone Toailoa rJR 6-2 275

DE Rusty Becker rSR 6-4 285

DE/NG Aaron Maldonado FR 6-3 295

Others in Consideration

NG Siu Fuimaono rFR 6-4 305

DE Gabe Cherry rFR 6-5 280

DE Chinedu Udeogu rSO 6-4 270

Overview

This season, former OLB coach Tony Tuioti fills the void of Azzinaro as the defensive line coach in what should be a pretty seamless transition. Tuioti worked with the defensive line plenty last season and is more than familiar with the techniques Azzinaro instilled in this group. Luc Bequette was voted by the team as the most improved lineman after a solid 2017 campaign; Bequette played his best football toward the end of last season and will continue to become a stout run stopper with good agility. He is a very hard worker and an offseason stalwart who is rarely banged up. Given the lack of depth at NG, he is capable of filling in. Expect to regularly see him as a DE in the 3-4 base. Zeandae Johnson is a player many Cal fans are excited to finally see on the field. He was the MVP of the spring in 2017 before an injury sidelined him for the season. He is finally healthy and beginning to look like his old self, continuing to improve as fall camp progresses. Johnson is very long and incredibly athletic. He is a capable run stopper and a talented pass rusher. His return should alleviate the loss of Looney and he is a breakout candidate for 2018. Expect to see him as a regular 3-4 DE who also plays inside in Cal’s 2-4 Nickel package. Chris Palmer is another guy who played his best football toward the end of last season; Palmer is a run-stuffing NG who supplanted Senior Tony Mekari as the starter toward the back end of last season. He is a large man and has become a solid player with improved technique and better leverage. His progression and health is imperative for the Bears given the lack of run-stopping depth in this unit.

Tevin Paul earned considerable playing time last season primarily as a pass rusher playing inside in Cal’s 2-4 Nickel package. Though not very sturdy once engaged, he is very quick and capable of being an upfield disrupter. He should be stronger this year and continue to demonstrate quickness and ability to get up the field. Lone Toailoa was a nice offseason JUCO pick-up and has flashed his ability as a pass rusher with strong hands. He does not have a whole lot of football experience, but has all the physical tools to be a future starter. This year, I expect to see him more as a rotational player primarily used on passing downs. Rusty Becker’s offseason development has been a pleasant surprise. After slipping from the rotation last season, he looks to firmly cement himself significant playing time this season as a Senior. Coaches rave about his leadership and work ethic off the field; he has packed on more weight and appears to be a capable every-down player with a great football IQ.

Aaron Maldonado is having himself a nice fall camp and projects to have a stellar Golden Bear career as he is already pushing for solid playing time as a true freshman. He is a strong guy and a capable run stopper—which this unit needs more of. I expect him to play this year and show promise. Chinedu Udeogu was in the rotation last year and is a formidable prospect player with his extraordinarily long arms. The staff likes his potential as a pass rusher, but he is not very thick and often was driven back by OL last season. Siu Fuimaono is another intriguing prospect player, but may need more time before he is a steady contributor. He is a big guy with raw talent, but does not have much football experience. The staff would love to see him ready this season, but I do not know if he is consistent enough at this point. Gabe Cherry is another interesting player as he has packed more size to his 6-5 frame. The light is beginning to turn on for him and he has the potential to crack the rotation.

Conclusion

DL coach Tony Tuioti would like to see a better pass rush from his DL this season and even with the losses of James Looney and Tony Mekari, I would expect the unit to improve in this area. Johnson, Bequette, and Palmer should be a very solid starting front; Paul and Becker are solid all-around backups and Toailoa is an exciting situational player. The concern here is run-stopping depth. The unit has struggled stopping the run in fall camp when its top players are off the field and this unit may be one big run stuffer away from being really good. Keeping the starters healthy will be crucial. Regardless, there are more ready contributors this season and the addition of Zeandae Johnson should make this an improved group.